A Note to Coptic-American Voters

The number of Copts in America in 1970 was tiny, and their economic power was meager. Still, some managed to pool their resources and buy buildings to establish native Churches. The process was relatively painless, money aside. Often the building belonged to a previous Protestant or Catholic denomination that saw its numbers dwindle. The permits were easy to come by, and the renovations were limited entirely by the resources of the flock. An early member of the Brooklyn Church in New York City remarked that “we can build more Churches here in America in ten years than in a hundred years in Egypt”. That came to pass. Few have asked how it came to be that Copts were able to come to America in the first place.

The US had placed strict limits on the number of immigrants from “brown countries” until the Celler-Hart act of 1965, which became administrative law in 1968. The Copts of Egypt would have had little chance to be in America if that law had not come to pass. The supporters of the law and the opponents of it are mostly dead or deep in retirement by now. But their literal and ideological descendants live on. When American Copts go to the polls on November 8 2016, one may humbly request that they remember which of the two candidates would have supported or opposed that law. One may further request that the vote be guided by what made their presence in America possible, not by the grievances of the old and damaged country.

— Maged Atiya


The Old Man and the Immigrants

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Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack.” Emanuel Celler

The old man came to Columbia College, his Alma Mater, in 1972. His long and illustrious political career was now on the rocks.. Emanuel Celler had been serving in the US House of Representatives since 1923, and now fifty years later, the young revolutionaries of Columbia saw fit to jeer him and hope for his defeat. The immigrant student had to come to his talk out of curiosity; he had just found out about the so-called Celler-Hart act of 1965. The act eliminated barriers to immigration from “brown countries”, and he was one of the first beneficiaries of that act after it came into effect in 1968. In 1929, as a young man, Celler made an impassioned speech defending the right of dark skinned people to immigrate to America, and remake themselves as Americans. At Columbia of that day the sympathies were with his challenger, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Holtzman, who spoke of the rights of women, and attacked Celler for his unreconstructed maleness. Celler did himself no favor in his talk. A man of German heritage, and mixed Catholic and Jewish religion, he seemed stiff, distant, and even arrogant. The times were changing and Celler, a liberal, was now considered insufficiently advanced. Few remembered his prescient insistence that the US should open its doors to European Jews in the early 1940s. Most noted his gruff rejection of the increasingly fashionable “rainbow” construction of immigration. Celler believed that immigrants should be welcomed and made to assimilate. In the end, Holtzman would win the Democratic primary. Celler could still have kept his seat running under the Liberal party banner, but he was spent. He quit. It is said that he spoke to a small audience in Brooklyn and proclaimed to have no regrets, having achieved his life’s ambition of making immigration equitable across races and religions.

Celler lived to a venerable old age, and passed away 35 years before a major political party would nominate for the office of President a low-rent would-be McCarthy, and immigrant basher to boot.

Postscript added March 5 2017. Celler is also the author of Article 4 of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution

Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


Donald Trump – American Takfiri

The idea of anger as a necessary prelude to reform is enshrined in the American political discourse. Many point to the Civil Rights and Feminism as instances of justifiable anger leading to social reform. It can be said that Dr Martin Luther King indeed got angry at the injustices inflicted on Black Americans. But he also famously compared them to a “bounced” check, a promise not kept. He demanded that the promise be honored, but never hinted that those that signed it in bad faith be punished.

What we saw in four days at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was something entirely different. The anger there was closer to political road rage. The injustice is simply a loss of honor, a sense of being dissed and ignored.  Many delegates and leaders believed that rudeness was required to address errors, and wholesale de-legitimization of opponents constituted a good political strategy. In the calls for imprisoning, or executing, Hillary Clinton we saw the rise of American Takfir, or of a re-emergence from a once rejected darkness. Political pundits insisted that this is an expression of economic malaise on the part of many Americans. Perhaps. But a closer and more obvious explanation is at hand. Speakers at the podium insisted that this is “the last election”, and unless Trump is elected, America will vanish. What did they mean? It is simple. We are at the end of two successful terms of an elegant, eloquent and thoughtful President. He also happens to be Black. If polls are correct, the next four years will see a restoration to a Midwest-born White …. Woman!. The country, their country, is changing, perhaps beyond anything the speakers recognize as true religion. The apostates must be rooted out. Red faced righteous anger is necessary and just. The irony is that Trump is adopting many of the thoughts and tactics of those he considers America’s enemies. A tale of lost status and desire for a return to ancestral ways to rebuild imagined greatness is rough medicine. From there there is the instability of political arguments becoming violent incitement, and worse terror for those who disagree or are as seen as accomplices to them.

From an observer who has studied such denouement up close. Let us not go there.

— Maged Atiya

 


Trump: Illiberal Democracy – American Edition

It is possible that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. He would then assume an office with enormous power. The American Presidency is a near dictatorship, constrained only by constitutional checks and balances.The legislative checks on a President Trump would be minimal. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, has already voiced that Trump would a “partner” in achieving partisan plans. The leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has just written a book in praise of naked partisanship and political opportunism. The judicial constraints on Trump are considerable, but he has shown strong disregard for the judiciary. This is to be expected from a litigious man wont to attack judges who disagree with him. We can not forget that President Jackson simply ignored the Supreme Court when it disagreed with his plans for ethnic cleansing of citizens who happened to be native Americans. The election of Donald Trump would represent a triumph of illiberal democracy. While many nodded in approval while such outcomes were recommended to Muslim-majority countries, it is doubtful they would like the native edition. What is not good for the Muslim is also not good for the Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or the unbeliever.

There is of course some hope that voters will reject Trump. But risks abound. Hillary Clinton is smart, tough and prone to political self-mutilation. Bernie Sanders remains the unreconstructed independent and the curmudgeon in the machine. Any number of events could sway the election. But even if voters reject Trump in November, the outcome will still be unsatisfactory. The country will live with the memory of an ugly campaign, and of the fact that one of its two major parties embraced a habitual liar, a ranting racist, and a self-enriching operator of failing businesses. This is considerable damage in a two party system. The Republican party is not a private club; it is a national institution with considerable responsibilities.

But all is not lost. There is still room to act. The GOP should pull its version of the Egyptian July 3 2013. It should break all its rules and democratic norms and annoint another man or woman as its candidate. It will be wrong. It will be an act that we can neither condone nor condemn. But it would be patriotic. It may not work in the long run, or it may.

Welcome to Third World politics America.

— Maged Atiya


Eastern Christianity – Notes on a Good Friday

As the Ottoman armies prepared to scale the walls of Constantinople, almost exactly 563 years ago, the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, looked west. He effectively severed Venice from Byzantium after a millennium of close relations. Further westward, the campaign for the capture of Grenada was already underway in Spain. It would come to a final conclusion before the century was over. Europe rid itself of any significant Muslim population, except for a sliver of the Balkans under Ottoman rule. The continent developed and rose to enormous power as a purely Christian culture and its narratives are those of competition between different Christian theologies and sects. The Ottoman Empire, however, retained a significant Christian population. But the fall of Byzantium signaled the end of Eastern Christian governance. It would continue further north in Kiev and Muscovy; both retaining Eastern rites in a Slavic culture. But in the Levant and Egypt Christians could only aspire to an inferior position, at best.

The decline of Eastern Christianity continued, although there was a false dawn during the late 19th and 20th centuries when the incursions of the West in the Middle East seemed to offer a promise of governance based on citizenship. But on the whole Western Christendom cared little for Eastern Christianity. The Christians of the Levant who looked west for support found mostly disappointment. The Christians of Egypt who never put much stock in Western help survived and grew proportionately to where they now constitute the bulk of Christianity in the region. The prospects for the future are somewhere between uncertain and dim.

The Syrian civil war will burn itself out eventually. Syria will likely be either partitioned or become highly federalized as to be effectively so. The interior will look like a less developed version of Saudi Arabia. The Mediterranean rim will have most of the heterodox Muslims and Christians clinging to its coast. Instead of Greater Syria we are likely to see the rise of a Greater Lebanon, with all its ills and uncertain and checkered divisions. The Copts will continue to be a presence in Egypt and their survival there will depend largely on the fortunes of the nation. In any case, the survival of Christianity in Egypt has always seemed so improbable as to be almost providential. In the meantime the West has acquired a significant Muslim minority that has yet to fully find its place in an alien culture. In an odd way Europe and the remnants of the Ottoman East exchanged roles.

The attitude of Western Christianity toward the Christian East is schizophrenic. One part of its psyche wishes for the survival of Eastern Christians, but another part adopts policies that lower the chances of such an outcome. America’s involvement with Iraq did not aid its Christians, but deepened their troubles through the collapse of whatever state power existed in place. The current US policy debate features supporters of closer engagement with Saudi Arabia versus those of closer engagement with the theocrats of Iran. Neither is  favorable to religious tolerance. Eastern Christians who immigrated to the West have done well and prospered there; yet few are certain about urging Western involvement with their ancestral lands. Both the Christians of the Levant and of Egypt are deeply suspicious about Western motives and means.The most they want from the West is more immigration visas.

It is a dismal election season in America. The two likely candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, occasion no enthusiasm. Clinton supports tolerance for religious minorities at home while promoting policies that dim prospects for such minorities abroad. Trump proclaims support for religious diversity abroad while espousing despicable bigotry toward Muslims at home. The interval between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday reminds us of the Christian faith in ultimate triumph over death. The fortunes of Eastern Christianity rest in such hope, and not in any earthly power.

— Maged Atiya

 


The Speech Obama Should Have Given in Cairo 2009

President Obama occasionally rises to the sublime, a gift rare for professional politicians. His speech in Cairo in June 2009, nearly seven years ago, remains a major flop, an Edsel of foreign policy speeches. Yet, in an entirely different forum (London), speaking about an entirely different topics (US protests), he gave the speech he should have given then. Let us quote a few lines from his speech that Egyptians, rulers and revolutionaries alike, can heed.

Movements are “really effective in bringing attention to problems

Activists  “you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them” [ implicitly rulers must do more than pretend to listen]

And to many so-called leaders of January 25And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position

To all sides in a polarized countryYou then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment

To those loudly urging democracy on Egyptchange is hard and incremental

To all sides in a country in deep trouble “solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions

At the moment, those who applauded the 2009 speech will likely pay little heed to the above words.

— Maged Atiya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


July 3 in the GOP

Donald Trump has earned the GOP nomination. Many will attempt to deny it to him, and in so doing will violate the rules of the nomination process. These violations will be as difficult to condemn as they are to condone. Rules matter, and changing them midstream brings unforeseen and often dangerous consequences. I was asked if a country that flirts with authoritarian populism can ever go back to being “normal”, or will the political system always carry these scars. That there is no ready counter-example leaves one with chilling thoughts. But the question remains, should the rules be violated now to prevent future violations?

Trump is the best American practitioner of the “stab in the back” politics. Such thoughts rarely lead a people to a happy end. The leader promises to restore greatness after the country has been undone by those enemies, internal and external, who stabbed it in the back. The plans are vague, the crowds large and howling, and the Thomases are pointed and cast out. America, as a whole, has escaped such predicament by a dint of constant prosperity and the resulting optimism. “As a whole” of course to hide the fact that the South, once defeated and faced with its moral culpability, has sometimes created its own sub-genre, but almost never conveyed it to national leadership. Yes, Trump must be stopped. But the rules might stand in the way.

This is a moment of humility for America that preached democracy to a sometimes skeptical world. A student of authoritarian populism must view Trump with both admiration and trepidation. Such a student must have no anger toward his supporters; most are decent men and women who saw economic opportunity evaporate in their lifetime (even if many are prosperous), their cherished faiths and prejudices denigrated by the cosseted few, and their unquestioned patriotism sent men and women to grievous harm in places with names echoing with guttural sounds, and in the service of nothing more identifiable than vague illusions and unworthy “allies”.  The 2016 election is now their moment, less for their effort than for the fumbling of others.

The election started out badly. American Presidential elections are now staged as entertainment events, with voters as consumers of such matter. The producers of this entertainment, the political donors, were persuaded or arm-twisted early to stage a sequel to the 1992 election. On one side we had Jeb! Bush  a decent retiree who ambled back onto the field with all the enthusiasm of a man leaving the comforts of home to manage a rough-and-tumble chicken farm passed from father and brother. On the other side, the capable and exceptionally smart Hillary Clinton thrilled a selected few on a windy Island in the East River with the novelty of electing a female President and persuaded them that her known performances are worthy of further trust.  As elections began to resemble episodes of the World Wrestling Federation, the voters can be excused for opting for the original. America had a decent enough President in Barack Obama, a man who expressed its best hopes. But he had been flayed politically; by the cynicism of GOP leaders who smirked when he was called a “liar” to his face in the halls of Congress, and whose birth and earned American accomplishments were challenged against all facts. When hope produced no tangible progress for the ruled, nor reticence among the ruling class, it was time for change.

One can drag out an endless jeremiad against identity politics and the ills it brings on the land. Political leaders of all stripes have engaged in it as a cheap substitute for substance, which in the modern world amounts to economic security. When Madeleine Albright reserved a special place in hell for women who do not “help” other women, she practiced a Trump-like form of identity politics, but with less elan and venom. It escaped no one’s attention that Trump-lite is merely a less tasty version of the original. Trump’s destruction of language and logic in airport hangars mirrors a similar one in campus lecture halls. In America of 2016 any candidate without an identity narrative is deemed too boring for consideration; boredom being the cardinal sin of entertainment. And so we find that all imitators have been bested by the most skilled of infotainers.

And we are now back to the GOP moment of truth. Nominate Trump and respect the rules, or deny him the nomination for high minded reasons that lead to low actions. Conventions are meant to be sausage factories, but the Republican 2016 recipe may be alarmingly similar to Egyptian Kofta.

— Maged Atiya